“Every great advance in natural knowledge has involved the absolute rejection of authority.” — Sir Thomas Huxley (1825-1895)

“Every great advance in natural knowledge has involved the absolute rejection of authority by people who know what they’re talking about.” – Bob Lewis’ clarification

Female managers are more nurturing and less political than their male counterparts — a fact that’s well-accepted by just about everyone.

Computer geeks see the world in very different terms than the rest of the population. They get stuck in the details, communicate poorly, and are social disasters. Everyone knows this.

Members of Generation X, Y and Z have no work ethic, can’t do math in their heads, and are socially isolated because they spend too much time attached to their iPods. And don’t get me started about blacks, Jews and Asians.

Oh, by the way, what’s your Myers-Briggs profile?

People are complicated, but, as the National Lampoon pointed out long ago, a walk through the ocean of most souls would scarcely get your feet damp. Perhaps that’s why the search for simplifying generalizations is so popular. It’s part industry, part hobby, and mostly nonsense, with big chunks of pseudoscience thrown in. The dusting of genuine research is barely discernable. It’s worth discerning.

For example: Janey Shibley Hyde of the University of Wisconsin should write a book titled Men are from Earth. So are women. Reviewing twenty years of research on the subject in a paper published last September in American Psychologist, she found that men and women are far more similar than different.

That computer geeks can’t interact socially with others in the business is an article of faith; that’s why we need business analysts to translate. This leaves unexplained a remarkable fact: Many technical professionals marry people who aren’t technical professionals, raise children who aren’t born speaking Java, and invite non-geek neighbors to back-yard barbecues. They must have a switch that’s thrown into the On position when they reach their cubicles that makes them unable to interact with business managers and users while they go about their work.

Or else they have a hard time communicating with their business counterparts because we tell both parties that this is so, so often and so emphatically that the repetition causes acceptance of this absurd generalization.

There’s really no doubt that Generations X, Y and Z are lazy, ignorant, and generally worthless, since every new generation has, from the perspective of their elders, been hopeless. Nothing new there. If you’re a member of one of these generations, I’m your elder and you are hopeless. Live with it.

What’s the point of this tirade? It’s that every time a manager generalizes about a group, that manager leads less effectively. Even the best generalizations describe the median of a bell-shaped curve — a poor predictor of any particular person.

When you deal with direct reports, group generalizations result in presuppositions, and these serve as barriers to understanding the human beings who report to you. When Sally is responsible for leading Harry, dealing with him as a general-purpose male is entirely pointless when Harry the person is right there in front of her. He very well might be a single Dad raising three teen-age daughters; might play the cello in his spare time; and might consider Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood to be the pinnacle of cinema.

Or he might use chaw, smear deer musk on his face, and drink beer in the woods each weekend. Thinking of him as “this is how males are” wouldn’t help Sally understand what makes Harry tick. It would mask it.

When you deal with those who report to those who report to your direct reports, you might figure you’re more justified in making use of the generalizations. After all, getting to know hundreds of employees as individuals simply isn’t practical. And it isn’t. But if you lead an IT group and figure you can read Paul Glen’s Leading Geeks, apply its principles, and you’re done … think again.

Just because you see a faceless collection of generic geeks doesn’t mean the geeks see themselves that way. Words have power: Use “blond,” or “ENTJ,” or “Generation X’er” or “soccer mom” and you persuade yourself that everyone to whom the label applies shares certain personality traits. They don’t … not reliably. Beyond that, your decision to generalize robs those who work for you of their individuality. That’s hard to hide, especially because they already know, “managers” are like that.

You might not be able to get to know each and every employee in your organization. That’s no excuse for failing to recognize that each of the men and women who work there is the hero of his or her own movie, and not an extra in yours.